The Future of PC: Dockable Smartphones and Home AI
Let me ask you a question. Do you need a super computer the equivalent of IBM’s Blue Gene in your home? I’m asking because that’s how powerful those desktop towers most of us were used to might be not too far from now.
Anyone who has been paying attention over the last couple of years can spot a clear trend. Our mobile phones and tablets are becoming powerful enough to compete with our desktop PCs, even in terms productivity. Input methods, peripherals and apps are yet to catch up, but with smartphones featuring quad core processors and over 1 GB of memory processing power on mobile devices is quickly becoming abundant.
There’s a running joke in some tech circles to ask if a certain device can run Crysis, and I’ve for some time now believed that we will soon have a smartphone that can indeed run games with such incredible high end graphics. If you look at Infinity Blade on the new iPhone 4S this idea doesn’t seem far fetched at all, and high end graphics seem to be a pretty good benchmark of how far processing power has come on a given device.
This major shift is causing some people to yet again rethink how they define a “PC”, a personal computer. The term is commonly used to refer to a personal general purpose computer, which should be sufficient to differentiate it from something like your microwave oven. This used to be bulky desktop PCs, then the definition was expanded to include laptops, and now there is significant push to include tablets, and even smartphones. The more general purpose they become, and the more powerful their capabilities, the more it makes sense to lump them in with desktop PCs and laptops.
This represents a pretty significant shift for the PC world, mainly because of the form factor involved. It used to be that we connected peripherals to our PCs, even input devices such as a keyboard. With laptops the input devices became a part of the PC, but with the transformation of these into small touch screens we are coming to a point where we will be docking our PCs into peripherals rather than plugging the peripherals into the PC.
This is how a smartphone can replace a desktop PC at home. You can have a set up with a full size keyboard, a big screen, big speakers and various other peripherals all connected to a dock. Once you put your smartphone into the dock it is connected to all of these devices. 1080p video on the screen, high quality audio on your speakers, and comfortable input via the keyboard, mouse or any other of the comfortably sized input devices you might like.
The PC becomes something you can both carry around in your pocket everywhere you go, and use at home as if it were a desktop PC.
When we consider the upcoming technology making it possible to reduce power consumption of these devices by a factor of 100, probably extending typical battery life from measly 10 hours we are used to right now to something like an entire month, this whole thing gets a whole new twist.
Obviously, while your smartphone is docked it can also be charged, but imagine it lasting entire 30 days on a single charge. Chances are minuscule that you wouldn’t want to dock it within such a period of time, and that basically means an end to worrying about battery life and whether you’re gonna run out, ever. That small yet incredibly powerful device can not only become the center of your computing life, but it will just keep working and working, perpetually. That’s just how power efficient it would be, thanks to upcoming technological advances.
But if smartphones can be this powerful, it only stands to reason tablets, notebooks and tower PCs could be even more powerful, and that leads me to my original question. Do you need a super computer the equivalent of Blue Gene in your home? In time, that’s how powerful we can expect it to be, and the question seems interesting when you consider the purpose of such a super computer compared to the things most of us do with our PCs.
This is about the frontier of processing power exceeding our common needs and expectations by such a high margin that a smartphone will offer more than enough, even for power users who do things like music production, video processing, 3D animation and so on. Of course, it is pretty hard to wrap our heads around the idea that a smart phone could do fast 3D rendering of complex high definition scenes, but if Moore’s Law continues (and there is no shortage of research that suggests breakthroughs that can keep it going) this expectation is perfectly logical.
After all, something similar has already happened. Modern smartphones are a number of times more powerful than the most powerful PCs were a decade ago.
Redefining The “Home Computer” – Smarter Watson In Your Home
The implications of this can be even farther reaching than just making something as small as a smartphone into the primary computing device, and removing the need for a bulky desktop PC. With processing power this abundant and power efficient, we might start thinking of a home computer in a whole different manner.
One thing that can always benefit from more processing power is artificial intelligence. Even the Blue Gene super computer still doesn’t have as much processing power as the human brain, but it is powerful enough to power the amazing AI behind Watson, recently demonstrated in The Jeopardy show, and now shopping for more serious jobs as doctor’s assistant or tech support “person”.
Imagine artificial intelligence running your home systems, one that can talk to you, entertain you, guide you, and protect you, and one which knows an answer to any question you might ever have. It is like the starship computer in Star Trek, except perhaps even better and more personable. This seems like a perfectly suitable substitute for a traditional home computer, and one that can justify having excess computing power at home.
Of course, cloud computing might remove the necessity to have local processing power run this AI by interfacing with an AI running from the cloud. However, having it run on your own home system makes it your own, and could perhaps allow the most seamless adaptation to your specific needs while offering greater security and reliability.
It can still communicate with various internet resources for data, of course, and even upgrade itself automatically, and communicate with all your devices across the world. In case you move, it can also copy itself into your new home, but with computing power as abundant as it would be it doesn’t seem necessary to have it actually run on a distant server farm as “Software as a Service”.
This could to remove the necessity of having a smartphone as a workhorse PC, but there is still a benefit to it being one. It is useful as a mobile workhorse that can hold its own in any dock anywhere without depending on an internet connection. Of course, it could technically communicate with the home computer or the cloud and have it complete certain tasks and offer back results, but I see a hybrid solution that offers both local power and cloud power at disposal as an ideal one in the context of cheap and abundant processing power.
Secondly, not everyone owns a home or might be interested in a Home AI. Plenty of people are renters or just prefer a traditional low-tech home. For those people dockable smartphones or tablets would probably present the most satisfying computing solution.
Form Factor Evolution
It is really the changes in possible and dominant form factors that tend to make us rethink our PCs and change our behaviors when it comes to computing, but the evolution of the form factor is directly fueled by the growth in processing power that can be had for a watt of energy and a square centimeter (or millimeter) of space. A pretty case without sufficient brains isn’t very useful.
On one hand we have the traditional desktop PCs being outmoded. Instead they might be integrated into the home itself. In a sense they’d move off of our desks and into some closet where they’re hooked up to all of our home systems.
On the other hand we have smartphones and tablets with user friendly touch screen interfaces for on-the-go computing, but dockable for a more approachable and comfortable work experience.
The duality between smartphones and tablets could get tiring, however, because it is a kind of uncomfortable middle between laptops and smartphones. If you have both a laptop and a smartphone it is hard to justify the expense of a tablet without treating it as a kind of luxury. The biggest hope one might have in justifying a tablet is as a replacement of the laptop.
What if we didn’t have to choose, however? What if the smartphone and a tablet could be a single device? Just as laptops subsumed desktop tower PCs, and as tablets are now trying to subsume laptops, smartphones could end up subsuming tablets. The key is in a breakthrough that would allow a smartphone screen to be seamlessly expanded into a tablet and back as needed so it can act as both a phone and a tablet on moments notice.
Flexible foldable screens, and bendable electronics already offer a glimpse of that possibility, but it will be a challenge to come up with a design that will “just work” without seeming messy and unaesthetic. Nevertheless, this is a distinct possibility, and the only alternative might be to remove the necessity for a bigger touch screen altogether by perhaps implementing retina projectors or eye lens displays, and feeding the video from the smartphone that way while using finger gestures or even thoughts for input, but that seems even farther off than expandable/foldable touch screens.
“PC” as we know it is undergoing a radical transformation with two new form factors leading the charge: smartphones and tablets. The reason why they’re even ever considered as PCs or possible PC replacements is the sheer processing power that can increasingly be put into them making it very easy to predict a near future in which they will be powerful enough for all tasks we currently use traditional desktop PCs for.
This creates an impetus to solve the lingering issues with input and peripherals, and docking seems to be an obvious ultimate solution. Meanwhile, the traditional desktop PC can only find its justification by upgrading its purpose into something far more formidable: a great artificial intelligence that runs your home and communicates with all your devices, and which could exceed the capabilities of both Watson and Siri personal assistant.
The explosion of processing power abundance seems to make cloud computing less essential, which is why I see a hybrid solution as an ideal one where cloud computing is used only to complement “local” processing rather than replace it completely. Apple actually seems to be taking this approach with the iCloud. iPhones and iPads aren’t exactly becoming stripped down thin clients, and the iCloud isn’t really running all those apps, but it is used to connect all the elements together into a seamless whole.
Finally, the same dynamic that causes all of this change, expansion of processing power available in the smallest form factor, may ultimately result in the merger of a tablet and a smartphone into a device that can expand and contract to act as both.
(Motorola Atrix docked photo by ETC@USC)